the alienation effect: further thoughts on D9.
It has been an interesting week. District 9 has continued to excite much interesting debate, and so has the damned Huntley affair. I have lately been laid low by a virus – relax, it is neither H1N1, nor something of alien provenance – just a middle-ear infection; but it gave me opportunity for many fevered dreams, in at least one of which I found myself living on a rainy pine-infested landscape, sharing a homestead with Wikus, Brandon Huntley and Caster Semenya, who for some reason appeared to be white. The pine forest referencing not so much Brandon’s (now, it seems, perhaps temporary home) but the book I am reading now, Annie Dillard’s gorgeous novel of North American colonial life, The Living. Which is another kettle of fish entirely.
For now, what want to do is to offer a few more thoughts on that fascinating movie. I have been to see it a second time; I have learned a lot from other reviews and from some thoughtful and perceptive comments on my previous post; I have been trawling the internets with delight and alarm. I’ve also had the occasion of an interesting email exchange with Barnor Hesse, one of the more penetrating observers of racism in these ‘post-racial’ times. I thought I would offer for more general discussion and tearing-apart some of what I wrote to him.
Firstly, regarding the ‘Nigerians’. I think a few things can be borne in mind. Firstly, it is undeniably true that the movie serves up a very in-your-face, stereotyped image of the African racial other, with all the signs and signifiers familiar from hundreds of years of racial stereotyping. The ‘Nigerians’, indeed, are almost surrealistically caricatured: as Belle Prannyshake pointed out in her perceptive comments in this blog and elsewhere, they are ‘cannibalistic, lusty, hot:’ one of them walks around with a python around his neck; I swear that I saw one with a hyena on a leash; and consistently the camera emphasises their brutality, their blackness, their bestiality, etc. It is, indeed, strong meat.
Secondly, it does bear remembering that the movie has its origins in a short film very deliberately and consciously seeking to problematize South African discourse about immigrants and specifically ‘Nigerians.’ Blomkamp’s clip ‘alive in Joburg’ is fascinating viewing; one of the best examples of the Brechtian ‘alienation effect’ (ahem!) I have seen: for the movie, Blomkamp interviewed real South Africans talking about immigrants, and juxtaposed the vox pops with footage of space aliens. The decontextualization effected by the science fiction works powerfully and subversively to highlight the dehumanizing logic of xenophobic discourse. As Belle points out, it is dangerous to get into ‘intentions’ when analysing a text, but I do think that we can at least allow them to complicate our readings.
Thirdly – and perhaps this is another place where foreigners will miss out on some subtleties – the ‘Nigerians’ in the movie are not Nigerians at all. The indigenous medical practices attributed to them are to my knowledge not at all ‘Nigerian’ in character, but much more local in nature. Quite a few times, some of them seem to be speaking what sounds like Swahili. I was powerfully reminded of my days of living in Muizenberg, where I would often hear complaints about the ‘drug-dealing Nigerians’ by local whites… none of whom could explain to me why most of said ‘Nigerians’ spoke French. Same in the movie. The ‘Nigerians’ are in fact named as such only by the whites in the movie. In other words, the movie is careful to give us clues that they are ‘Nigerian’ only in the way that Rwandans, Cameroonians, Senegalese, Somalis and Congolese in South Africa are ‘Nigerian’ – viz. only within a very particularly racist gaze. So it is clear that Blomkamp and co are doing something rather complex – not so much offering a racist caricature, as caricaturing racist stereotypes themselves – which is a different thing entirely.
Fourthly, on seeing it a second time, I had the nagging but distinct sense that although the ‘Nigerians’ are portrayed as brutal, bestial, etc etc, there is also a distinct sense in which they are admirable. They are the only humans in the film who do not react to the aliens with squeamishness. They are uncannily like Wikus in one sense (they want to become the Alien); but they are also like the MNU (they want the weaponry). They are at home in the landscape that most humans regard with distaste, and which the MNU can only occupy and traverse with weapons and armoured vehicles. Most importantly, there is an honesty about ‘Obesandjo’s’ lust for power that contrasts very favourably with the MNU’s heartless machinations.
This is linked to a bigger set of underlying issues, which is that I think the Nigerians are deeply necessary to the ‘representative economy’ of the movie, in that they represent a very particular set of ideas and narrative possibilities. In a way, Wikus, the MNU and the ‘Nigerians’ all represent very distinctly different ways of relating to alienness.
This diagram may look familiar to some of you: it looks a bit like a Greimasian semeiotic square, which is a way of exploring conceptual opposition and contrast in a text or representation. In a Greimasian thinking, the opposition between the concepts ‘human’ and ‘alien’ is one that involves not two terms, but at least four: for example, not only human and alien but also not-human, not-alien.
This helps us understand the nuances of this opposition much more clearly. In the above diagram, the horizontal axis, left to right, relates to the ‘alien’/ not ‘alien’ distinction. On the left are Wikus and the MNU – the side of the ‘us’ in racist discourse, defined in opposition to ‘alienness’, and whatever it is that exists in the expelled, cordoned off terrain of ‘District 9′. On the right is the ‘other’, that-which-needs-to-be-expelled (and expelled ever further; as we learn right at the start of the movie, District 9 is not far enough: the nightmare logic of racism is that District 9 turns out to be too close; it needs to be cleaned up and replaced by District 10). And as is very clear from the movie, this is a terrain that belongs as much to the ‘prawns’ as to the ‘Nigerians’.
But that is not the only axis of differentiation. The vertical axis, the axis of up-and-down, differentiates the protagonists according to the extent to which they are ‘human’ – capable of fellow-feeling, kinship loyalty, and vulnerability. This is what separates Wikus and ‘Christopher Johnson’ from the MNU and the ‘Nigerians’: while the MNU and the Nigerians are ‘inhuman’ and heartless, interested only in power and exploitation, the movie links Wikus and the ‘Prawns’ with themes of sentiment and affection (thus we have Wikus’s love for Tanya, and we also have the classic, almost corny Bill Cosby- style father-son bond between ‘Christopher Johnson’ and ‘his’ alien ‘son’). Most importantly, Wikus and the Aliens have this in common: they want to get ‘fixed’. They want to go home.
So the ‘Nigerians’ are not a simple afterthought or a plot mechanism. They embody the possibility of gutsy human survival and adaptation within the badlands of ‘district 9′. They are clearly preferable to MNU: much less calculating, and also much cooler in a kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max way. There is much, one might think, that Wikus might be able to learn from them, and they from him. But the film maintains the separation between Wikus and them: his heart belongs with his ‘angel’ in the white suburbs; even though he has become an alien by the end of the movie, he cannot ‘go over’ to ‘that other side.’ While Wikus might go home, and while the Aliens might fly away to their distant planet, the Nigerians are the true aliens of the film, comfortabe denizens of the crime and war zone.
Which brings me to my fifth point: I do think that the representation of the ‘Nigerians’ is the one place in the film where the movie falters in its ability to unpick the workings of racist ideology. Because, for all of these interesting complexities, the reality is that the movie does not obviously withdraw or complicate its apparent endorsement of the African stereotypes. There are ironies and complexities – but they are evident only to a fairly sensitive and conscious viewer. In fact, the film actively pushes these complexities in side. The crucial flaw, in fact, lies lies precisely in this: it relies for its narrative drive, for its satisfaction of the ‘adventure’, on the antagonism against (and the extermination of) the ‘Nigerians’. So even though the real villains are all white, and even though the movie subtly mocks xenophobic discourse, many audiences will no doubt identify with this ‘othering’, and will cheer when Wikus’s alien exoskeleton kills them all so picturesquely.
So, as I said, a troubling film. But, I think, important and worth taking seriously for all that. In the end, despite these flaws, the movie works powerfully to raise disconcerting questions about identity and ‘othering’ both inside and outside South Africa. As a South African today, where ‘aliens’ are still routinely deported, I think the film is playing an enormously important role in asking questions and encouraging debate about the way in which xenophobic logic and modernity still interpenetrate in our government today. In those terms, it has been massively successful, at least here. And it has relevance beyond South Africa. As many commentators have pointed out, the alliance of brutal violence and bureaurcratic form that it so carefully depicts is found in Guantanamo Bay as much as it is in Gauteng. MNU’s DNA is that of Blackwater and Halliburton as much as it is that of Armscor and Denel.
And somehow – and this, I think is the genius of the film – it has done so in a way that almost perfectly marries form and content. Why does the film ‘need’ to be a science fiction film in order to make its points about South Africa… and why does it take a South African setting to make a science fiction film which feels so grittily real? The answer is, I think, twofold. Firstly, that the best science fiction has always been ‘news from the present’, focusing on what we are through pictures of what we are becoming. And secondly, I think one can say that postcoloniality is futurity. If the future is now, what country better encapsulates that future than South Africa, with its confluence of violence, race, inequality,technology, regulation, despair and hope?